It’s probably happened to you before. It was a Friday, for sure, close to midday to be more precise. You were walking down a street in Buenos Aires and just happened to catch a smell that hit smack dab in your face, the unmistakable whiff of asado taking a hold of your senses. You kept on walking, for sure, expecting a parrilla to pop up at some point and let you discover the source of your craving. But none did, and the only thing you were able to spot was faint smoke coming from a construction site.
You had just stumbled upon one of the worst kept secrets in the city, that the best meat in town is not cooked in any fancy restaurant in Palermo or a high end club in Barrio Norte. You have been face to face with the asado de obra and, by the end of this article, you might just regret you didn’t go into the site that Friday to ask for a bite.
Mariano Ruiz Diaz started working in construction sites as a cook in 1989. Over the years he has seen the evolution of the asado de obra, from an almost daily activity to the traditional Friday time slot it now holds in construction sites all over the city. “It was always the cheapest and also the most practical thing to cook because in two hours you would have food for thirty people,” recalls Mariano from the construction site of the extension of the Subte E Line close to Luna Park, where I interview him to the side of (you guessed it) a scorching parrilla.
I’m about to be witness to a real treat: Mariano and his fellow coworkers, Darío Carrizo and Zanón Bautista, are about to cook their now famous meal, the one that made them the winners last month of the Second Annual Asado de Obra Championships launched by the city government of Buenos Aires.
Mariano and Darío have known each other for about 15 years. In their respective households, they are the people in charge of the asados. “At home I’m asador number one,” says Darío, the chattiest of the trio. “Back home my family waits all year for me to go there and cook for them. Where I go I cook asado and people know it. I get there a bit earlier, light my fire in advance and cook with patience. You have to like it because if not then it will not come out right.”
Mariano, on the other hand, is from Paraguay but over his 43 years in Argentina he has grown to take the Argentine tradition of asados to heart, to the point that his children and grandchildren (all born in this country) count on his expertise every Sunday. “At home, if I don’t do it then nobody will,” recalls Mariano with a childish grin. “My daughter actually lives close by and if she wants to eat meat she [knows where to go].”
The last one to join the trio was Zanón who started working at the construction just a year ago as a machinist. In his house, the one in charge of the parrilla is his brother, with whom he moved from his native Bolivia back in 2001. “He’s a much better cook than I,” he explains. “We’ve been cooking since we arrived, since somebody told us about asado culture here in Argentina. We began to get into it. It’s that time of the week in which we can share with our friends, kid around, laugh. It’s the ideal moment to forget about everything.”
So what makes an asado de obra so special, exactly? Well, it all begins with the quality of the cuts of meat which are selected by the workers in a butcher shop of their choice, usually nearby. In the guys’ case, the chosen place is not close at all, which means that a volunteer worker (with a car) actually has to go pick up the products a day in advance. The cuts selected? “Costilla, falda, y tapa de asado (rib roast, flank steak and rib cap roast) which are the most traditional and the ones people eat the most, besides also being cheaper,” explains Darío. To round it all up, they also have some chorizo and salad.
By 9:30 AM on any given Friday, preparations for the meal have officially begun, with lunch being slated for noon. Time, as you might expect, is of the essence, and much more so for these three guys who have a shared principle when it comes to cooking meat: patience is a virtue. “You have to cook slowly, that’s the key,” explains Mariano. “You have to do it with love and patience. It’s like with women, the secret is to treat them with love. If you rush it it doesn’t work, it’s much more fun if you do it slowly,” he concludes before exploding into laughter with his fellow mates.
On this particular day that we’re chatting, the guys have a big parrilla at their command, one located at a premise that belongs to the Urban Transportation Ministry, close to their own construction site. But they’re accustomed to grilling in any condition necessary. “If you’re the asador you have to make do with what you have,” Darío explains. “On a stake, on a metal plaque, on a group of bricks and a rack on top, you have the responsibility of making it happen.”
Perhaps because of this innate ability of improvisation, Darío has developed an original technique to lighting the fire, one that caught the eye of many a competitor during the final of the championship in November and is without a doubt one of the keys to the trio’s success.
“Most people light the fire on the ground, but I do it on top of the grill. I just light some pieces of wood under the pile of charcoal and it makes a fire rather quickly when it’s on top because of the air that comes from below. On a flat surface there’s no air and if you take too long all your guests are just gonna leave. The day of the final everybody was taking pictures of me because I made the fire in just ten minutes.”
Back in 2016, world-renowned chef Anthony Bourdain (1956-2018) visited Buenos Aires thanks to his Parts Unknown show and decided to include an asado de obra in his itinerary, probably engulfed by the mystique surrounding the legendary gathering. At the end of the meal he alluded to the fact that he just “wanted to go home and sleep.” It’s safe to wonder then: how much work actually gets done in these places on a Friday? The guys, though, are quick to point out that the camaraderie between the workers leaves little reason for worries. “On Fridays everybody covers for us, those that have less work cover for the asadores because the asado has to come out on time for all to be happy,” explains Zanón. “Friday afternoons are more relaxed for sure but the guys try to do as much work as they can in the morning just in case.”
It is this collective nature of the asado de obra that just might be the key behind its success. Once a week, this escape valve allows the workers to let loose and strengthen the bonds they share. Darío was part of a site, some years back, in which the weekly meal was suspended because wine drinking had become an issue for the bosses. The result? The group still got together outside of work hours to make their asado somewhere else. “It’s contagious, I’ve actually been in sites in which neighbors get together to buy the meat on Fridays just to be able to participate and eat,” Darío explains.
As winners of the Asado de Obra Championship, the guys received one parrilla set each to take home, given to them by an unexpected judge: President Mauricio Macri himself (Macri’s appearance was announced just minutes before the event, and put “an added spice to the mix” for the trio).
Since then, they have appeared on several newspapers and even cooked live on Cocineros Argentinos, the popular cooking show on TV Pública, squeezing as much as they can from their new-found fame. The only thing left for them to do is to claim the other part of their prize: a dinner at steak powerhouse La Cabrera, one of the best rated parrillas in town So how do three of the biggest meat experts in the land feel about eating at the famous shindig in Palermo? “I will say this: it will be good to be in the judge’s seat for a change,” concludes Zanón with a gleeful smile.